Article published in The Shreveport Times
Louisiana is a lovely place to be a tourist, but a lousy place to be a student. But the nation’s eyes should be riveted toward the Bayou State, because its education system may be about to improve dramatically, thanks in no small part to the October election of Rep. Bobby Jindal as governor.
Louisiana’s student test scores tell a sad story. On the national test known as the Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Louisiana’s fourth and eighth graders scored among the lowest in the country on reading and math in 2005.
On the state’ reading test that same year, only 69 percent of fourth graders scored as “proficient,” and even fewer — 65 percent — were proficient in math. The longer students are in the school system, the worse they perform on the state test. Only 55 percent of eighth graders scored proficient in reading, and only 57 percent were found proficient in math.
Despite such poor performance, Louisiana’s government officials, teachers unions, and other hand-maids of the education establishment have consistently fought vouchers and other private-school choice measures that could help students from poor and middle-class families achieve better education and at the same time improve public schools by introducing healthy competition and providing innovative examples.
A 2004 paper from the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana denounced “voucher schemes” that would “siphon dollars from starved public schools” and, in rhetoric that doesn’t pass the straight-face test, proclaimed, “The Louisiana Legislature has a duty to support a quality public education for all children, but has not delivered. Voucher programs further aggravate the educational inequity. They are unfair, unaccountable and un-American.”
The facts tell a different tale. School choice programs consistently produce higher test scores, higher graduation rates, and higher family satisfaction.
The following year, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita left 372,000 students without schools. Untangled by the chains of bureaucracy, the state’s private schools reopened first and took in thousands of displaced public-school students.
In contrast, New Orleans public-school officials dimly prognosticated that most schools wouldn’t reopen for at least a year. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a longtime opponent of private-school choice, signed a plan taking over New Orleans schools “in academic crisis.” The plan allowed regular public schools to convert to charter schools operated by private groups rather than by the Orleans Parish School Board. The teachers union had long fought such a move, but the crisis created by the hurricanes made it inevitable.
Meanwhile, Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Rep. Jindal, a fellow Republican, introduced a proposal to create Family Education Accounts for the students displaced by the hurricanes. Each student would receive $6,700 for the 2005-06 school year, and the accounts would give parents flexibility without channeling the funds through layers of public bureaucracy.
“We owe it to them, and their families, to find innovative solutions that make sure that parents are empowered to provide the best educational opportunities for their children,” said Rep. Jindal.
Unfortunately, bureaucracy proponents disagreed with Rep. Jindal’s parental empowerment message and insisted that the funds be funneled through public bureaucracy.
Even so, the Hurricane Recovery Education Act provided the largest school-choice program in history. The program provided tuition reimbursement up to $6,000 per student ($7,500 for special education students) to public or private schools that welcomed displaced students.
But the program lasted for only one year. Despite the better responsiveness of the state’s private schools, Gov. Blanco remains adamantly opposed to private-school choice. On July 19, she vetoed a bill sponsored by Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Livonia, to grant tax deductions of up to $5,000 to parents of private-school students.
Christian Roselund, communications director of the United Teachers of New Orleans, explained that his union opposed the tax deduction because letting parents keep their own money would “undermine a public school system.”
Gov. Blanco agreed with the teachers union. “It is my fear that this legislation may subsidize private schools at the expense of public school children,” she explained.
Gov.-elect Jindal, on the other hand, remains strongly supportive of private-school choice, and that’s good news for Louisiana’s children and families. And the power of the teachers union has suffered tremendous damage. One side benefit of the conversion of New Orleans schools “in academic crisis” into charter schools is that the act weakened the union and its ability to fight education reforms.
Louisiana desperately needs the power of the market to improve opportunities for its students. A robust system of private-school choice will benefit the students whose low- or middle-income parents need the financial help to send them to private schools. But it will also help public-school students as well. A more level playing field will force public schools to improve if they want to be competitive in 21st-century Louisiana.
And if the ascent of a pro-market governor and the decline of pro-bureaucracy unions truly lead to an educational renaissance in Louisiana, the rest of the country will benefit from the example of a shining city in a bowl.
Leslie Carbone is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute.
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